The Advent of Tribal Population Studies

The “tribe”, as a special form of human association, has been traditionally approached either as a type of human society or as a stage in its evolution. However, it is only recently that applied research was conducted with respect to the quantification and pattern recognition processes related to the tribe and tribalism. This I shall term the advent of tribal population studies.

Applied research in this arena includes two basic varieties at least. The first variety comprises social science inquiry. As one illustration in this regard, the elaboration of the tribal index intends to measure the degree of tribalism as it interacts with violent extremism and militancy (Deckard & Jacobson, 2012). The index is supported by the Office of the Secretary of Defence Minerva Program and run by the Office of Naval Research. On its basis, more recent studies have underscored a strong negative correlation between tribalism and financial development (Asongu & Kodila-Tedika, 2015).

The second variety of tribal population studies can be attributed to neurosciences, i.e. cognitive sciences that examine “what happens in the brain when people interact” (Goleman & Boyatzis, 2008, p. 74). A relevant instance in this sense emerges from Joshua Greene’s research, which shows how tribalism is an object of intra-corporal measurement through brain imaging and other techniques (Greene, 2014).

This focus on the central importance of tribes and tribal culture in the postmodern world has manifested itself in three main epistemic spheres. The first sphere relates to market economy. In effect, the tribe has linked itself to market economy in unprecedented ways since the second half of the 20th century. Three remarks are to be underscored in this regard. Firstly, the concept of social capital gained momentum both as a theoretical and an operational tool in development. Starting from the 1970s, social capital came to be seen as “the wealth of nations”. Works such as “bowling alone”, among a rich body of literature, highlight this trend (Putnam, 1995). Secondly and concomitantly, the concept of neotribes gained steam as a postmodern form of social capital. Maffesolis’ late 1980s neotribes attracted attention as a ubiquitous form of sociality in the Western World (1988). Currently, “consumer tribes” are accepted as being assertive, i.e. co-producers of branding culture both in actual and virtual realities. For that reason, businesses need to study tribal dynamics, categorize them, and acquire tribal knowledge in order to survive the market (Maffesoli, 2007; Kozinets, 1999; 2006). This guiding principle encompasses every single facet of market life, from sport to music. Thirdly, tribalism operates in strategic zones such as the Middle East (ME). In its violent and peaceful forms, tribalism shapes, therefore, the environment of petrochemical production, a vital source of energy for market economy.

The second sphere has to do with criminal justice. During the 1970s, environmental criminology had focused on the community as a core actor and factor in responding to the problem of urban disorder. Subsequently, Community Policing (CP) emerged as a potential solution, especially in the United States (Brogden & Nijhar, 2005, pp. 23-28). CP is a philosophy that endows sociality with a policing functionality. Community involvement had thus become the keystone in preventing criminality.

What evolved simultaneously is an inter-migration between the ideas of community and tribe. For instance, advertising strategies in the United Kingdom adopted the tribe as a geo-demographic classification. Leading agencies thus aimed at reaching a new understanding level about London’s urban communities. As for security strategies dedicated to the ME, community and tribe came to be accepted as two sides of the same coin as well. The view that tribes impede political stability, as democratization theory argued during the 1990s, is now less tenable. This can be evidenced by the fact that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) recommended tribes, as partners and passage obligé on the road to democratization in ‘fragile States’ (Carter, Dininio, Murtazshvili & Schwoebel, 2010, pp. 1-3). So did a 2008 publication of the Marine Corps University (Salmoni & Holmes-Eber, 2008, pp. 1-2).

This leads to the third epistemic sphere where the importance of tribes made itself evident: international military and peacekeeping norms. Starting from 2001, CP took a global proportion with the drafting of the “Democratizing police abroad”, a study destined to the US Department of Justice. The document aimed at making police and practice research in the United Sates a global vector for coping with international criminality (Bayley, 2001, p. 3). The US is the top provider of funding to the United Nations Peacekeeping Operations, a fact which explains why peacekeeping operations have come to encompass the tenets of CP in recent years. Needless to say, the tribe is the key community in the geographic zones where these operations are most deployed.

Of course, such an overview may not provide a satisfactory explanation or an analysis of the specific circumstances under which the tribe evolved as quantifiable unit. In addition, it is general in scope and selective in nature. However, one can see at this point how the tribe and tribalism have come to be at the crossroads of market economy, criminal justice and international peacekeeping normativity. In the interstice, tribal demographics sparked both as a strategic necessity and a condition of possibility for policy making and scholarly inquiry.


Asongu, S., & Kodila-Tedika, O. (2015). Tribalism and financial development. (Working paper no. 15/018). Retrieved from:

Bayley, D, H. (2001). Democratizing the police abroad: What to do and how to do it. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice (National Institute of Justice).

Brogden, M., & Nijhar, P. (2005). Community policing: National and international models and approaches. Devon: William Publishing.

Carter, L., Dininio, P., Murtazshvili, J. & M.H. Schwoebel. (2010). Tribalism, governance and development (Working paper). Washington, DC: USAID.

Deckard, N. & Jacobson, D. (2012). The tribalism index: Unlocking the relationship between tribal patriarchy and Islamist militants (Manuscript 1149). Tampa: New global studies.

Goleman, D., & Boyatzis, R. (2008). Social intelligence and the biology of leadership. Harvard Business Review, 86(9), 74-81.

Greene, J. (2014). Moral tribes: emotion, reason and the gap between us and them. London: Atlantic Books Ltd.

Kozinets, R. V. (1999). E-tribalized marketing?: The strategic implications of virtual communities of consumption. European management journal, 17(3), 252-264.

Kozinets, R.V. (2006). Netnography and tribal advertizing. Journal of advertizing research, September, 279-288.

Maffesoli, M. (1988). Le temps des tribus: Le déclin de l’individualisme dans les sociétés de masse. Paris: Librairie des Méridiens.

Maffesoli, M. (2007). Tribal aesthetic. In Cova, B., Kozinets, R. & A. Sankar (Eds), Consumer tribes. Amsterdam, London: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Putnam, R. D. (1995). Bowling alone: America’s declining social capital. Journal of democracy, 6(1), 65-78.

Salmoni, B.A. & Holmes-Eber, P. (2008). Operational culture for the warfighter: principles and applications. Quantico: Marine Corps University Press. 

This entry was posted in Ethnicity by Mamoun Alaoui Ismaili. Bookmark the permalink.
Mamoun Alaoui Ismaili

About Mamoun Alaoui Ismaili

Mamoun Alaoui Ismaili is currently a Phd candidate in African Studies at the Institute of African Studies-Mohammed V University in Morocco. The working title of his thesis is “the genealogy of the tribe in mauritanian governmentality”. His focus is on the emergence of the tribe as a problem in African and Middle Eastern governmentalities. His other major research interest is the history of the problematisation of the concept of tribe within different fields of knowledge. Among his publications is an article about Mauritanian politics at the IPRIS Maghreb Bulletin. He is currently a Graduate Teaching Assistant at the Faculty of Law.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>